WASHINGTON (CBSDC/AP) — Sikh American police officers in the nation’s capital can wear the turbans and flowing beards associated with their religion under a policy announced Wednesday by the D.C. police department.

Sikh community leaders said they know of no other major metropolitan police department with a written order ensuring that Sikh officers can maintain their appearance, though other law enforcement agencies have made less formal accommodations.

The change will have minimal practical effect, at least initially. The department’s only Sikh officer is a reserve who is scheduled to graduate from the academy in August.

However, advocates for Sikh rights said it is significant.

“I think it’s a step forward not only for civil rights and religious freedom, I think it’s a step forward for law enforcement,” said Jasjit Singh, executive director of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, which pushed for the change. He said the public benefits when police departments represent the diversity of the communities they serve.

The special order permits Sikh officers to tie their beard in a knot and tuck it beneath their chin and to wear a turban at all times unless it conflicts with an assigned duty — such as responding to a riot — that requires them to wear a helmet. The turbans are supposed to match the color of the department-issued caps — blue — and display the same badge as seen on the caps.

Police departments routinely ban beards for safety reasons, such as the need to ensure that an officer can be fitted for a gas mask, though exemptions are made for medical conditions. Officers seeking to wear articles of faith on the job would need authorization from the chief, who would decide on a case-by-case basis.

D.C. police officials described their new policy as a commonsense way to preserve religious freedom without compromising an officer’s safety.

“If in fact they had to don, say, a helmet for a protest, then they could wear a smaller a smaller turban — so there are exemptions that could be made to that,” Assistant Police Chief Patrick Burke said in an interview.

The special order took effect last December but was not announced until Wednesday because of scheduling issues and to give the policy some time to be in use, Singh said.

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